Cooking with one of the most ancient domesticated vegetables: Lau-Tetor Daal/ Moong Lentils cooked with Bottle Gourd and Bitter Gourd

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I had very little hope when I started my Google search for “bottle gourd” and didn’t expect very many things written about this C-list celebrity vegetable. But I was pleasantly surprised and learned quite a few things about it.

Bottle gourd (also called lauki, lau or ghiya in India) is one of the most ancient domesticated vegetables and sits right next to dogs in terms of two of the most ancient domesticated species. A native plant of Africa, it migrated first to Asia and then to the Americas, most likely through ocean currents. The wild variety of bottle gourd was not initially used as a food source. The dried skin was instead used as containers and like a ladle to scoop out things long before our ancestors invented pottery. The hollow fruits were also used as musical instruments (indeed, I own two of these myself).

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Bottle gourd from my garden

Domestication usually takes a long time, sometimes hundreds of years (ask Dr. Sen, he has a violent opinion on this). It can inadvertently alter the species, both genetically and morphologically. The geographical location, the sheltered existence, the controlled temperature, the lack of environmental competition, are a few of the zillion reasons which can alter the species being domesticated. Among many other things, the wild variety of bottle gourd had a much thinner skin compared to the current domesticated edible variety. Like many other vegetables, these gourds also traveled hundreds of miles across the ocean and reached a different country (or sometimes continent), and upon finding land again, the thin skin/rind made the dispersion of seeds easier. But once humans started domesticating the gourds, the need for natural seed dispersion disappeared and the rind gradually grew thicker to adapt to the domesticated environment. Over centuries, it grew so thick that the modern day Bengalis decided to make use of that outcome and a wonderful delicacy showed up on the Bengali vegetarian menu, i.e lau-er khosha bhaja (stir fried bottle gourd rind).

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Bitter gourd from my garden as well

An easily digestible vegetable, bottle gourd is eaten almost all over India. But as is their wont, Bengalis decided to go beyond the usual norm and eat almost all parts of the fruit and the plant itself. It will take several blog posts for me to cover the entire gamut of recipes Bengalis use to cook this humble and rather neutral vegetable. They stir fry the rind with whole poppy seeds, cook the leaves and stems with other vegetables and fish heads, wrap spice-coated fish or shrimp in the tender leaves and steam them or add the chopped fruit to lentils. Think I’m done? No way at all. We also make a bitter curry by combining bottle gourds with bitter gourds (karela), a “West Bengal special” by adding poppy seed paste, mix it up with sun-dried lentil dumplings, tiny shrimp or fried fish heads or make a dry-ish curry with mung lentils. The list is literally endless but all of them are equally delicious. While I cook all of these, a few are my personal favorites and the bottle gourd cooked with mung lentils (lau-muger daal) is one of them. Like most Bengali standards, it can be cooked in different ways; I cook it like my Maa does, which is what you’ll find here. I’ll try to post a few other recipes before the summer is gone (and with it, my treasured supply of home-grown laukis).

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The recipe below is an approximation and can be altered. Also, the photos of the daal were taken hastily and I promise I’ll post some nice ones later.

Ingredients:

Mung lentils: 2/3 cup

Bottle gourd: 8-10 cubes (peeled and cut approximately into 2” pieces)

Bitter gourd/Karela: One medium (4-5 inches long), cut into thin slices. It’s hard to quantify the karela here because it will depend on the bitterness of the karela or how bitter you like your daal to be. So adjust accordingly.

Radhuni/Pnach phoron/methi: 1 tsp. (I use radhuni but it’s hard to find it in the US. My next preferred spices is methi for this daal and in absolute pinch, add pnach phoron)

Ginger: one inch piece, ground into a paste

Dry red chilies: 2-3 nos.

Bay leaf/Tej patta: 2-3 nos.

Turmeric (optional): 1 tsp. (in some household the daal is cooked without turmeric in it but I prefer my daal to have some color)

Green chilies: few

Mustard oil: couple tablespoons

Salt to taste

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  • Dry roast the daal very lightly, taking care of not to over-roast or burn them. You can skip this step as some people prefer to cook it with unroasted daal.
  • Start boiling some water in a deep bottom pan.
  • Wash the daal with couple changes of water and add them to the boiling water. Add turmeric powder if using.
  • Once the daal is half-cooked, stir it with a whisk or traditional daaler kata. Do not make daal mushy.
  • Add the lauki pieces to the daal. Let the laukis and the daal get completely cooked. Do not overcook either of them.
  • In a separate pan, heat up the oil to a smoking point but don’t burn it. Add the karela slices and shallow fry them. Drain the oil and add them to the daal.
  • Add salt to taste and boil the daal for couple more minutes to incorporate the flavors.
  • Add the ginger paste and keep the flame on medium for the daal to have a gentle boil. Do not boil the daal for a long time after adding the ginger paste. You want the fresh ginger taste to be there.
  • Reheat the leftover mustard oil and add the radhuni/methi/pnach phoron, red chilies and bay leaves to it in the mentioned order. Once the spices are well roasted and you can smell a nice aroma, add the spices with the oil in the daal.
  • Immediately cover the daal to trap the aroma.
  • You can also add the daal to the oil (my Maa does it this way).
  • Serve the daal with fried eggplants (begun bhaja) and plain white rice.

PS: If you do not like the bitter taste in your daal, you can skip the karela and cook the daal like I mentioned above. Use jeera as a tempering spice in that case.

 

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No Hard Goodbyes for Alcohol

Today is one of those days which give me hope that I might yet make something worthwhile out of myself. I have no clue why, but I’m hopelessly prone to chasing – dreams, goals, people, you name it, I’ve chased it. Not saying I always won, just chased. Anyhow, having been worried about my own somewhat excessive drinking for a while, I chased (and this time, won) the 100 Days of Club Soda Challenge, which is roughly what it sounds like – one hundred consecutive days where alcohol and I have had nothing to do with each other. And yes, Shameek, that includes beer.

Having been off the booze for a hundred days today, I’m wondering – why did I need to do this? What did I get out of it?  After all, for many years now, I’ve enjoyed a stiff drink (or seven) on a hard week’s Friday night just as much as the next person (see exhibit #1 below). Unusually for my otherwise meandering and slightly messed-up brain, it didn’t take too much thinking at all before I realized that a single word explained my sudden need to stop drinking – “boundaries”.

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As I cross my mid-thirties and head towards the big four-oh, I’m becoming acutely aware of the importance of setting clear boundaries, both with oneself and with others. As with all of the best lessons I’ve learnt, this has mostly been through making mistakes. I’ve failed to define and protect boundaries in too many of my own relationships, and watched them go into autodestruct mode more often than I care to acknowledge here. And it’s not even always about two people – I’m guilty of having let third parties infiltrate boundaries that I should have kept sacrosanct and paid a horrible price for it (and no, I’m not talking about extramarital affairs here). Damn, come to think of it, given my own personality, I’ve probably invaded far more than my fair share of others’ boundaries over the years too (never with malicious intent, though – just didn’t realize I was overstepping). I’ve watched with admiration as people confidently walked out of bad marriages with their small children and very little financial security because their boundaries were trampled upon once too often. Sadly, in extreme cases, I’ve watched people literally begging for their personal boundaries to be invaded, which always makes me almost as mad at that person as at the creeps that invariably end up taking over their lives and destroying them.

Within the walls of my own little kaleidoscopic world, at multiple points in my eventful thirty-seven years, I’ve failed to set boundaries with substances (and then had to say Hard Goodbyes that I could have done without). Cigarettes were a bitch, I should have had more sense. Sleep meds were the older sister that taught cigarettes all there was to learn about being a bitch. I say this because nothing, absolutely nothing, I’ve ever gone through is as bad as years of severe chronic insomnia. About the only thing I still miss sometimes is high-quality weed, and to be frank, if you’re sharing, I’ll still take a drag or two. But to me, alcohol was always a gentler, sweeter sin, a beautiful but slightly twisted woman with a heart of gold and fuzzy morals just like mine, if you will. And so, like the cherished ex-girlfriend who I never had the balls to completely banish from my life, it would break my fragile heart to say another Hard Goodbye to my weekly Friday night rendezvous with a crystal tumbler of golden, barrel-aged rum. And so, around 3am on a drunken Saturday morning, I had the following memorable conversation:

“Excuse me, my lovely Ron Zacapa Aniversario, and thank you, Mr. Baccarat Decanter but you don’t define me, see, it’s the other way around – I define you. Now, please get back to your places on my bar shelf, or else I’m going to have to pour you down the sink and break you into little pieces, respectively, and we wouldn’t like that, would we? There, such sweethearts the two of you are. Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing each other again in just a few days – but this time on my terms, dahlings.”

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And so, one little red check mark at a time (exhibit #2), I went about my little quest to redeem some measure of confidence in my own ability to set healthy boundaries. I won’t even dwell on the minor rewards I got out of doing the whole Club Soda challenge thing, such as the approximately $600 not spent at my friendly neighborhood liquor store (enough for sixty slices of richly marbled otoro sashimi at Tachibana, talk about serious addictions). Or the ten pounds I lost, which have me back at my college weight for the first time in fifteen years. At the end of the day, those are merely numbers. All things considered, my big winner’s prize is the kick I got out of firmly removing Alcohol from that precious little zone that no one gets to share except me, myself and a person masquerading as Shurjo. I’m sure I’ll pour myself another drink at some point, but as for today, I’m not even craving one. And that, my friend, is a sweet, sweet feeling.